A watchdog has found that the Home Office failed to ensure innocent students were not wrongly accused of cheating on their English tests and denied visas – prompting calls for them to be allowed to take resits.
The National Audit Office (NAO) has today (May 24) published the findings of its investigation into the Home Office’s response to widespread fraud within the student visa system revealed in a Panorama documentary in 2014.
Amyas Morse, the NAO’s head, said in a statement that the department “acted vigorously to exclude individuals and shut down colleges” involved in the scandal.
But added: “We think they should have taken an equally vigorous approach to protecting those who did not cheat but who were still caught up in the process, however small a proportion they might be.
“This did not happen.”
Charity Migrant Voice welcomed the NAO’s findings and said that the Home Office’s treatment of the students constitutes “a mockery of the British justice system”.
It is calling on Home Secretary Sajid Javid to allow all accused students to resit a secure English test and, if they pass, have their visas reinstated with enough time to complete their studies.
What Exactly Happened In The English Test Scandal?
Image Credit: Ben Mullins/Unsplash.
Clandestine filming broadcast in a 2014 BBC Panorama documentary showed clear evidence of fraud in at least two Educational Testing Service (ETS) centres while students took the Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC) as part of their visa-renewal process.
In response, the Home Office investigated college test centres and students and began cancelling the visas of those considered to have cheated the exam.
The ETS used voice recognition software to uncover suspected cheats and identified 97 percent of cases as “invalid” or “questionable”.
Students with results deemed “questionable” were allowed to resit, while those with an “invalid” result had their visas cancelled.
The NAO report states that this course of action “carried with it the possibility that a proportion of those affected might have been branded as cheats, lost their course fees, and been removed from the UK without being guilty of cheating or adequate opportunity to clear their names”.
An expert commissioned by the National Union of Students (NUS) in 2015 believed the software could have made errors in up to 20 percent of cases.
For two years the Department revoked the visas of anyone with an invalid test, without expert assurance of the validity of voice recognition evidence.
NAO Report, Investigation Into The Response To Cheating In English Language Tests
However, an independent expert hired by the Home Office in 2016 put the margin of error of the tech at one percent.
This expert’s evidence backed up ETS’s overall assessment of widespread cheating but “neither proves definitively that an individual’s test was invalid,” the NAO found.
It adds: “For two years the Department revoked the visas of anyone with an invalid test, without expert assurance of the validity of voice recognition evidence.”
Thousands of students have remained in the UK to fight the allegations of cheating and clear their names – but many have struggled as they have been told they have no right of appeal and must leave the country.
‘The Impact Has Been Devastating’
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Nazek Ramadan, director of Migrant Voice, said: “Thousands of people have been criminalised and their lives torn apart on the basis of fundamentally flawed evidence – and they were given no real way to fight the allegation.”
She added: “The way the Home Office has treated these students makes a mockery of the British justice system. And the impact has been devastating.
“Those still living under the shadow of the allegation and fighting to clear their names live every day in growing despair.
“Stripped of their rights, many are destitute and suffering severe mental health problems. Many have contemplated or attempted suicide.”
The way the Home Office has treated these students makes a mockery of the British justice system. And the impact has been devastating.
Nazek Ramadan, Director of Migrant Voice
Thousands of people accused of cheating have still won the right to stay in the UK.
The Home Office has not tracked the reasons why people have been allowed to stay.
Some have disproved allegations of cheating, others have remained on human rights grounds.
What Did The Home Office Say?
A Home Office spokesman said: “As the National Audit Office has highlighted, the Tier 4 system was subject to widespread abuse in 2014 and almost all those involved in the cheating were linked to private colleges which the Home Office already had significant concerns about.
“The report is clear on the scale and organised nature of the abuse, which is demonstrated by the fact that 25 people who facilitated this fraud have received criminal convictions.”